Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Anti-dad

With his furrowed brow and energised prose, Martin Amis ensured that every novel of his became the most anticipated literary event of the year. This has been going on for almost four decades. His latest novel, Lionel Asbo, has been awaited even more, considering its subtitle: “State of England”. The past 18 months have been tumultuous for Britain: a phone-hacking scandal, riots, an uncertain economic future, an underachieving coalition government, the recent floods in London, the Barclays scandal and so on. The roaring success notwithstanding, the Olympics might push the country into a deeper financial hole.

But Lionel Asbo has nothing to do with overarching or newsy themes. The titular character, a dead ringer for Wayne Rooney, is an odious 20-something crank living in a fictional London borough called Diston, where no citizen can spell IQ. He is to take care of his adolescent orphaned nephew, Desmond (or Des) Pepperdine, who is in turn having a sexual relationship with Grace, his grandmother and Asbo’s mother. Des knows the repercussions if his uncle gets a whiff of the sexual shenanigans, but he thinks the act is worth the risk. However, the straw that breaks the camel’s back is the £140-million lottery that Asbo wins.

The plot is fertile territory for Mr Amis to parody everything from celebrity culture to the way London’s nouveau riche conduct themselves — and he does this in his usual effortlessly brilliant manner. Asbo’s indifference to the jackpot sort of sets the urban dystopian tone for the novel, “See that’s what happens when you win a hundred-odd million quid. You go numb. Not happy. Not sad. Numb.” Two thirds of the novel is about Asbo’s way of getting back at his nephew, who eventually outgrows his carnal fondness for his grandmother and is ready to settle down with a proper girlfriend.
Despite its timeliness, Lionel Asbo is nowhere near Mr Amis’ best work. His universe used to be so much more resplendent: it was either drink, drugs and pornography (Money) or environmental disasters and nuclear weapons (London Fields and Einstein’s Monsters) or sexual revolution and male anxiety (The Pregnant Widow and The Information). Topics like incest, anti-social behaviour, misanthropy, flailing male egos are too effete for Mr Amis.
I trudged my way through the book to not find anything half as sublimely outrageous as this paragraph in Money: “...with a chick on the premises you just cannot live the old life. You just cannot live it. I know: I checked. The hungover handjob athwart the unmade bed — you can’t do it. Blowing your nose into a coffee filter — there isn’t the opportunity. Peeing in the basin — they just won’t stand for it. No woman worth the name would let it happen. Women have pretty ways. Without women, life is a pub, a reptile bar at a quarter to three....”

Of course, Lionel Asbo has some of Mr Amis’ penetrating humour, like this deeply comic description of the aimless decay of the town: “Diston, with its gravid primary-schoolers and toothless hoodies, it’s wheezing twenty-year-olds, arthritic thirty-year-olds, crippled forty-year-olds, demented fifty-year-olds and non-existent sixty-year-olds.” The usual criticism levelled against Mr Amis is that he writes exquisitely, sadly about nothing of consequence — Lionel Asbo confirms this. Reams of wonderful passages don’t come together to lend any levity to the flaccid plot.

There are the usual etymological quibbles with which Mr Amis suffuses the book, much to a lexiphile’s pleasure. He is constitutionally incapable of writing a dull sentence. With an eye for detail and rhythm, Mr Amis takes prose to the level of poetry, like this one: “its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste. Diston — a world of italics and exclamation marks.” The let-down in the book is the quasi-cat-and-mouse game between the principal characters. Asbo never confronts his nephew — that’s the novel’s biggest drawback. To top it, the climax is a cop-out.

More than the main plot, a few side stories elevate the book a little, like the ruckus created by Asbo’s scandalising remarks at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, the slow-burning descent of Grace, the aw-shucks romance between Desmond and his girlfriend, the reality-television antics of Threnody, Asbo’s post-jackpot squeeze, who is to tabloid journalists what a moth is to a flame. If only Mr Amis let these characters stew in their own neurotic juices, the novel could have been far more readable. Despite the author’s constant denial, one gets the impression that Lionel Asbo is Mr Amis’ disgruntled farewell gift to England as he’s moving house from Camden Town in London to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn.
In his recent piece in The New Republic, Mr Amis made it clear why he has chosen America: because it “remains, definingly, an immigrant society, vast and formless; writers have always occupied an unresented place in it, because everyone subliminally understood that they would play a part in construing its protean immensity”. If dissatisfaction was really what he wanted to express, Mr Amis should have aimed for something higher than a David Foster Wallace trying his hand at Sue Townsend material.

State of England
Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape
276 pages; £14

Needed: Olympian attitude

Sports Minister Ajay Maken feels India cannot expect to win more medals in Olympics as it has a poor Human Development Index (HDI) and low per capita Income. At six medals, it wasn’t a bad haul at all for us this time around. But before you join the deafening chorus of “Mary Kom, the Super Mom”, take a look at the medals table and you can’t not notice that North Korea is way above us with four gold medals.

Now, this is the same North Korea where half the population subsists on one-square meal, which might as well be nibbling the scrawny legs of rats. The thing is that even the hideous DPRK has a semblance of a sporting encouragement system in place. While our politicians, both at Centre and state, who are falling over one another to shower money on the medal winners, weren’t to be seen during the athletes’ trying times.

Maken’s remark is quite reminiscent of the point made in the the book Poor Economics, where MIT economists Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo attribute India’s dismal Olympic performance at least partly to very poor child nutrition. They document that rates of severe child malnutrition are much higher in India than in sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that most of sub-Saharan Africa is significantly poorer than India.

Let’s face it, even the healthier part of the country places far more emphasis on academic performances than sporting ones. We can crack the toughest of mathematical Olympiads, see through any IIT paper, solve the most unyielding physics problems but a hundred metre sprint is not within our DNA. Part of the blame lies with our obsession with cricket and another part is the fact that we treat athletes as freaks of the nature. Maybe this is why we still come up with occasional medals in individual events but come up a cropper in team events. If this attitude persists, we are doomed to be deemed by the world as one-trick ponies that can only provide back office support but have nothing else to show for themselves.

It’s not enough to goad the athletes from the comfy confines of our home through social networking sites. And I guess we’ll continue to be like this as long as we are served by governments that only care about destination but not the journey. For example, Maken needs to be shown this particular paragraph in a recent Grantland article written by Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier, both academic economists: “Even the significant segment of the Indian population that grows up healthy is at a disadvantage relative to China. The Chinese economic development model has focused on investment in infrastructure; things like massive airports, high-speed rail, hundreds of dams, and, yes, stadiums, world-class swimming pools, and high-tech athletic equipment. And while India is a boisterous democracy, China continues to be ruled by a Communist party, which still remembers the old Cold War days when athletic performance was a strong symbol of a country’s geopolitical clout.”

My arguments might sound a tad lazy but then, lazy sporting attitudes and lazy sports managements probably deserve lazy commentary.

His effortless brilliance

Ever since his meteoric third novel Corrections, published in 2001, Jonathan Franzen carved an enviable niche for himself in modern Western literature. His brilliance reached its apotheosis when his fourth novel Freedom got him endorsement from Barack Obama and a cover story in Time magazine. It’s hard to think of anyone else who mined his white middle-class irascibility into modern-day Dickensian sagas the way Franzen did.

In real life, however, Franzen comes across as the cantankerous man you would prefer to never run into at a party. He is Thor-like, with a hammer that is quick to nail absolutely anything, whether it is Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry, e-book readers, Edith Wharton or literary critics. Farther Away, a collection of essays that Franzen wrote for various publications over the last few years, throws some light on what goes inside that effervescent head.

Fittingly, the book opens with Franzen’s commencement address at Kenyon College where he laments over a horde of issues: smartphone obsession, Facebook mania, the marketing holocaust that capitalists shove down our throats, mankind’s increasing habit of overlooking what nature has to offer. His one-line dismissal of Facebook is bound to rankle in your head for days together: “We like the mirror and the mirror likes us.”

This technophobic side of Franzen can, however, get a tad overbearing. In a long fulmination about a person’s choice to say “I Love You” over the phone, Franzen did get on my nerves. “The sudden overwhelming sensation of ‘loving’ somebody, which to me is such an important and signal sensation that I’m at pains not to wear out the phrase that best expresses it, is for other people so common and routing and easily achieved that it can be reexperienced and reexpressed many times in a single day without significant loss of power.”

I agree that Franzen should cut us some slack for our cellphone talk but perhaps we should cut him some slack too. The reason being that when he’s good he’s really good. Franzen reinforces the old chestnut that only great writers can be great critics. Farther Away is peppered with his dazzling literary criticism of writers as disparate as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alice Munro. My personal favourite is his championing of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. He praises this ridiculously neglected book in a way that convinced me that all dark fiction emerged from Stead’s gut-wrenching novel, not The Wizard of Oz. Stead’s utterly detestable protagonist Sam Pollit is probably the only misogynist and narcissist in the history of literature to have attracted readers’ sympathy. Franzen’s passionate, fair-minded thorough exegesis of Munro’s collection of short stories evokes the gilded age of literary criticism that Frank Kermode and Harold Bloom ushered in.

Farther Away provides a detailed image of Franzen’s near-obsession with bird-watching, which took him to far flung places like the Mediterranean region and China. In an essay titled The Chinese Puffin, published in 2008, Franzen talks about the fledgling but ever-increasing tribe of avian aficionados in the world’s emerging superpower. If there’s an overarching theme to this scorching set of essays, it has to be Franzen’s cuter-than-hell friendship with David Foster Wallace. In an essay, first published in the New Yorker in 2011, Franzen talks about his deceased friend while readingRobinson Crusoe in an idyllic island in central Chile. This is the highest form of literary criticism: reading a book at its actual location and going through the same motions as the protagonist. The epiphany he derives from the book is, “With Robinson Crusoe, the self had become an island; and now it seemed, the island was becoming the world.” That island is a self-contained universe, a bit like the Chicago slaughterhouse that Upton Sinclair describes as “hog-squeal of the universe”.

This might describe Franzen’s easy-to-be-mistaken-as-rebarbative worldview and it sort of explains why Wallace hanged himself in 2008. Franzen gives some fleeting glimpses into the little-known Wallace — he expatiates on Wallace’s manic-depressiveness and his constant struggle with it, which some alleged was Franzen’s way of showing jealousy. In an interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick, he even said Wallace didn’t mind fabricating his essays a little bit. If you can ignore that, you will find that equally heartrending are the memorial service remarks that Franzen made at Wallace’s funeral. Tributes rarely get more beatific than this: “Way out at word 70 or 100 or 140 in a sentence deep into a three-page paragraph of macabre humour or fabulously reticulated self-consciousness, you could smell the ozone from the crackling precision of his sentence structure, his effortless and pitch-perfect shifting among levels of high, low, middle, technical, hipster, nerdy, philosophical, vernacular, vaudevillian, hortatory, tough-guy, brokenhearted, lyrical diction.”

Not everything’s hunky-dory about the book, though. Some of the essays are long-winded and stand out as mere fillers in this elegantly designed book. For example, Franzen’s faux-memoirs about his childhood trip stand out like a sore thumb. Franzen’s previous foray into creative non-fiction (The Discomfort Zone, a memoir of his first marriage) was a disaster. That nitpicking aside, Farther Away is right up there with the collection of essays by Jonathan Lethem and J J Sullivan with which we have been blessed this year.

Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
321 pages; Rs 1,222

More power to power suits

Ever since the edifice of the global finance industry started crumbling in 2008, readers revelled in the following terms to berate the cogs of this giant machine: vampire squids, one per cent, fat cats. In his new book, Finance and the Good Society, Yale professor Robert J Shiller says we are getting it all wrong. His passionate defence of the financial industry’s panjandrums should elicit a huge collective gasp, last seen in 1965 when Bob Dylan chose to play electric instruments.

Mr Shiller asks a very important question: what if the biggest problem is not capitalism’s failure to deliver on its promise, but the promise itself? The book is divided into two parts. The first part is about the roles and responsibilities of the architects and stewards of finance: investment bankers, mortgage lenders, insurers, policy makers, philanthropists and economists. Even with the glut of recession literature clogging bookstores, Mr Shiller speaks about the finance workforce in a very original manner.

Over five to seven pages, Mr Shiller articulately describes the responsibility of each driver of financial capitalism, and how rapacity set in over the past few years. The chapters on lesser-known parts of the workforce – derivatives providers, financial advisers and non-profit managers – made me feel like a cave-dweller walking beside Plato, which is a good thing. Nothing escapes Mr Shiller’s gimlet eye, but his idealistic view of the industry sometimes borders on naivety. Speaking about an MBA education, he says, “Our educational institutions have an obligation to present a view of the true workings of financial capitalism, and to cover both the mathematics and its human, practical and moral side.”

Mr Shiller makes up for this lack of pragmatism through crisp writing and a far-ranging knowledge of economics. To talk about the origins of derivatives, he goes back to the period between the mid-620s and mid-540s BCE when the Greek philosopher Thales gave earnest money for the use of olive presses at an agreed rental rate for a later harvest. This example underlines Mr Shiller’s assertion that earning money is a cinch and that even “philosophers can easily be rich if they like”.

The second part offers a few ideas on how to improve the current system without excising it of its efficacy. Here it appears that Mr Shiller isn’t exactly fully awake. In a chapter titled “Financiers versus Artists and Other Idealists”, he uses a handful of examples to make the point that financiers could make headway in the creative field and vice versa, but his examples are inexcusably bad. He cites Charles Ive, an insurance executive-turned-symphonic composer, and Henry David Thoreau, a revolutionary who used to manage his family’s pencil company, as possible inspirations for the reader. The problem with these examples is that none of them is rooted in the last three decades. Still, he has the audacity to close the chapter with: “This may not be the world about which young artists, philosophers, and poets fantasize, but it is reality — and a reality we must learn to accept. Self-promotion and the acquisition of wealth, whether by financial or other means, is no crime”. Despite 20 years of teaching economics, it does not seem to have occurred to Mr Shiller that a 25-year-old bond trader may think of quitting the job at 40 to write novels but may not find the zeal to do so when the time comes.

Finance and the Good Society is like coaxing ketchup from a bottle: sometimes, no matter how much you try, the sauce inside won’t budge; then it suddenly pours out all at once. A chapter called “Problems with Philanthropy” holds a message for Tim Geithner and Barack Obama. Here’s an idea that should persuade the super-wealthy to loosen their purse strings a lot more often and liberally: “There could be instituted a new kind of organisation that I will call a participation nonprofit corporation… It would raise money by issuing shares, buying shares in it would be a charitable contribution for tax purposes. Selling shares in it would have no consequence as long as the proceeds were donated to other charitable causes.”

For every insightful chapter, there are acres of fallow material. Here’s the leading contender for the year’s clunkiest line: “Financial lobbyists, if they are properly regulated, are essential, for only the financial community has the expertise to understand the financial marketplace and the ability to evaluate policy regarding it. They must of course be monitored and regulated, but a modern economy will necessarily involve such lobbyists.”

Later this year, there are pretty good chances that America might choose Mitt Romney, a Republican and former CEO of Bain Capital, a financial services company, as president. Mr Obama’s campaign is targeted at Mr Romney’s cut-throat tenure as CEO when he slashed jobs. He might dash off a thank-you note to Mr Shiller for making an unequivocally formidable case for his erstwhile métier. Sadly, for Mr Shiller, that could be the only appreciation his vastly uneven book might attract.

Robert J Shiller
Princeton University Press
288 pages; $24.95

All the Presidential men

The recently concluded, bitterly-fought Republican race for US Presidential nomination had a conscience that wasn’t to be seen at the one that just happened in our backyard. Yes, there were recriminations and some insanely dirty linen was washed in the public but there were some serious debates that took place too. I know that I’m comparing apples and oranges.

But my point is that why make brouhaha and feel slighted (cue Mamata Banerjee) over a post that is merely a five-year paid holiday for people in the twilight years? How does it matter who takes it up? Unless the post has more teeth it will continue to be the political equivalent of a trophy wife. Apart from giving the pre-Republic Day and Independence Day speeches, awarding the prizes prefixed with a Padma, the President is usually seen taking a stroll in the Mughal Gardens or on a junket to an exotic country.

Let the President’s rule in a state continue for at least six months. Let not the political parties browbeat the President into accepting their diktats (recall the Kalam-Bihar controversy). It was amusing to see that every bits and pieces politician found his/her 15 seconds of fame by waxing eloquent/stern about the Presidential candidates. Somnath Chatterjee was bemused when his name was floated around. The closed room discussions and intense secrecy over such a simple issue drove me to the wall. The finger-wagging news anchor was shrill in his blanket assumption that “India needs to know”.

What India really needs to know is that when will the reforms happen or when will the rupee scale back a little bit. India should hardly care about a post that is the last relic of its British past. It’s not that this election is anything as monumental as the 2008 US election: black man versus first woman. Can we even dream of a President aged in 50-55 range?

At least Pranab Mukherjee (unless Sangma pulls off a Houdini, which looks highly unlikely) might lend some authority to the seemingly figurehead position after his predecessor’s insipid five years. I might be missing the woods for the trees but so are the politicians and, in the latter situation, which was to be seen in the Ambedkar cartoon issue as well, bodes tremendous ill for the country.

D-I-Y filmmaking

First-time director Karan Gour would have been drummed out of a Bollywood mogul’s office within minutes of pitching the plot for Kshay (Hindi for “corrode”): “It’s about a young woman’s all-consuming obsession with the statue of Goddess Lakshmi, and how this leads to her slow-burning descent.” So Gour makes a DIY film that is absolutely low on production (unknown actors, handheld camera) but extremely rich in plot.

Chhaya (Rasika Dugal), married to construction sub-contractor Arvind (Alekh Sangal), thinks all her problems (barren womb, decrepit quarters) have one panacea-like solution: a king-sized statue of Lakshmi. With her hand-to-mouth existence, Chhaya finds it hard to find the 15,000 rupees for the statue. Her obsession grows manifold over the movie — and its final twenty minutes are the most harrowing you are likely to see in a long, long time.

Kshay turns the stereotype of Indians’ fascination with gods and statues on its head. We are the nation that believed that a Ganesh statue can drink milk if offered. We make arduous treks for a fleeting glimpse of the numinous deity in Tirupati or Vaishno Devi. Gour’s anthropological interest in this has caused the making of the boldest Indian film after — no, not The Dirty Picture! — Gautam Menon’s Nadunisi Naaygal. Atheism in Indian cinema is not unheard-of; but, much more usually, plot contrivances lead the protagonist to believe at the end that it’s probably better to genuflect before a block of stone if that’ll help revive his dying relative or whoever. What’s more, the quid pro quo promptly happens. In the last decade, there have been three films that stand out for their distinct take on presence of god: Rituparno Ghosh’s Antarmahal, Trivikram Srinivas’ Khaleja and Bala’s Naan Kadavul (Tamil for “I Am God”). Ghosh’s period drama is about how catastrophic events are spawned when a zamindar asks a stonemason to carve out a statue of Durga Mata. Khaleja, in Telugu, is a 30-crore rupee answer to the question of god’s existence: divinity is something that we need to tap from within.Naan Kadavul, a bizarre Slumdog-Millionaire-for-the-disenchanted sort of a film, goes a step further and says that its protagonist (Arya) is the alphagod.

What sets Kshay apart from these middling-to-pretty good movies is its straight-eyed focus on Chhaya and her disintegrating self. The climactic episodes when she behaves like a junkie strapped of her daily fix is testimony to her Velcro-like tenacity. How do you rationalise with someone who wants a goddess in her bedroom? Even her husband, played with an understated demeanour by Ankit Segal, doesn’t veto her intention. If he had money, he would have got it the moment Chhaya sets her eyes on it — and she is not among those who believes in that Goethe dictum, “beware of wishing for anything in youth, because you will get it in middle age.” She’s more of a Walt Whitman girl — “resist much, obey little.”

Filmed in black and white, with naturalistic sounds and back-of-the-head shots,Kshay is an Indian aspirant to modern, minimalist, do-it-yourself schools of film-making like Denmark’s Dogme 95, the Berliner Schule or even the American Northeast’s mumblecore movement. Somehow, in Chhaya’s one-bedroom apartment in Mumbai — which actually looks like one, a rarity in Hindi cinema — Gour creates enough space for himself to brilliantly capture lower middle-class life in the city. The dialogue is never over-the-top, and sometimes lazily, naturally insightful. One of the opening lines sets the movie’s tone: “Patthar ko naaraaz mat karo” (Never upset a stone). The interludes in the latter half of an exploding statue are heartbreakingly good. Not that Kshay is faultless. At 90 minutes it still looks 20 minutes long; and, on a few occasions, Gour’s cinema verite techniques don’t quite cohere into the narrative.

So, have we finally discovered the poster child for the new, new Hindi cinema? (Remember, Mani Kaul, Kamal Swaroop and Anand Patwardhan were supposed to be “new Hindi cinema”.) You never know. The reason you don’t is what I call “the Madhur Bhandarkar Syndrome.” Its latest victim is Homi Adajania; after making a wonderful, oddball movie — Being Cyrus — the fatal charms of neon-bedecked Bollywood seems to have sucked him into making Cocktail, which, prima facie, looks like a poor man’s version of Vicki Cristina Barcelona with tons of internet humour thrown into the mix.
So, for now, let’s leave Gour alone, and marvel at the fact that after a long time a Hindi film kicks the doors of movie greatness off its hinges.

Habito ergo sum

When Paul O’Neill took over the reins of the aluminum company Alcoa, it was in bad shape. To turn it around he adopted a different tack: O’Neill realised that the company used to lose at least one man-day every month to accidents. So he ensured that workers’ safety was given paramount importance and, as a result, profitability surged automatically

Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit uses many similar stories, related in captivating detail, to explain the central theme of his book as explained in the subtitle: “Why we do what we do and how to change.” Duhigg, a New York Times journalist, delineates habits broadly into three categories: those of individuals, successful organisations and societies. He is at his very best when dealing with the first category. He uses simple illustrations to explain how a few of our habits have been induced by using the “cue-routine-reward” method. Ad guru Claude C Hopkins, the prototype for Don Draper of Mad Men, introduced Pepsodent to the world by saying you would feel a tingle in your mouth after brushing your teeth. Here, the cue is the plaque that forms on the teeth whenever you eat something. By flashing a wide-toothed grin with a twinkle between the teeth, Hopkins induced the customer to brush her teeth on a daily basis.

The one chapter that bestrides the book like a colossus is “The Golden Rule of Habit Change”. Duhigg uses some terrific examples to explain how habits that are deeply ingrained can be tweaked without affecting the “reward”. Tony Dungy, the iconic coach of the NFL team Tampa Bay Buccaneers, pulled his team out of the rut by asking the players to stick to their instincts. The players knew a few formations that allowed them to cohere and stop their rivals from scoring, but Dungy didn’t want too many permutations and combinations (the conventional formula for NFL glory) because he didn’t want his players to “think”. “If his players think too much or hesitate or second-guess their instincts, the system falls apart,” Duhigg writes.

The Power of Habit is the sort of book that is born out of an intellectual marriage between Malcolm Gladwell and Sigmund Freud, which is then raised by Daniel Kahneman. Duhigg marries Freud’s psychoanalysis with Gladwell’s perspicuous prose, and Kahneman’s latest book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is an obvious influence. Gladwell’s Blink, and Nudge, written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, have a theme similar to The Power of Habit. But where the latter scores the most is in the instances that Duhigg cites and the vim of his writing. These examples can be ferreted out if you spend copious amounts of time on Google. However, the personal touch and the odd anecdote elevate The Power of Habit to a different level.

In the chapter “How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do”, Duhigg masterfully explains how the Target store would look at the customers’ shopping habits and make ballpark predictions on who is pregnant. Soon-to-be-mothers are most valuable customers because research shows they tend to buy everything under one roof. Duhigg explains how the supermarket chains outwit their competition without giving customers the heebie-jeebies. This chapter is a fascinating tale about corporate marketing and how every customer tic is worth monetising in the future.

The Power of Habit should not be perceived as a part-study on behavioural economics. It’s much more evolved than that. What’s more, he shows the reader a way to get over their bad habits without ever extinguishing them. If there are jagged edges, then it has to be the way Duhigg slips into journalese on more than one occasion. He quotes Rahm Emanuel’s vapid statement during the 2008 meltdown that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” but does not care to examine it more deeply with the benefit of three years of hindsight. The investment banks are still their narcissistic selves — this was evident in the recent $2 billion trading loss that JPMorgan suffered.

The writer’s explanation of how to stop chewing your nails or drink fizzy sodas requires a suspension of disbelief beyond belief. He posits through examples that charting out the cravings on paper would help beat the habit. These recipes to get over the “bad habits” are simplistic. But then, a start has to be made somewhere. And you can do far worse than to follow what Duhigg has to say.

Charles Duhigg
William Heinemann
380 pages; Rs 599